The Focusing Illusion and Overwatch

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” — psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.

In the team-based competitive shooter Overwatch, there’s little that’s more frustrating when your teammates refuse to prioritize pushing the payload towards victory or ignore the giant glowing landmarks that you need to capture or defend. Look, it’s not difficult, people. Stop chasing that Tracer around, stop leapfrogging around as Winston, and stop wandering the map in search of god knows what while the other team has its act together and focuses on what’s actually important to winning. Get. On. The. Payload.

Fortunately, this happens less in Overwatch than it might if the developer Blizzard weren’t savvy about a little trick of psychology.1 It’s the same wrinkle in our thinking that also explains the optimism of people paralyzed in car accidents, the happiness of people living in California, and the number of dates you had last month.

The concept is known as the focusing illusion, and it basically holds that we overestimate the importance of something when we pay attention to it. What’s more, we overestimate its importance to the rest of the big picture. For example, David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman illustrated this point by asking people to estimate how sad paraplegics would be in the years after the accident that paralyzed them.2

The subjects, perhaps reasonably, focused on the tragic disability and gave it extremely high weight when considering the things that would make such a person happy or sad. Yet there are other things in the life of a paraplegic that could make him or her happy –friends, family, art, reading fan theories about Westworld, just to name a few. And studies have shown that with their basic needs met, the day-to-day happiness of such people does eventually return close to the baseline, pre-accident levels. Similarly, poor estimations of happiness in the opposite direction were found when subjects were asked about lottery winners. Respondents focussed too much on money and ignored all the other misfortunes and aggravations even rich people have to deal with.

Neither does that focal point have to be made explicit. Sometimes our own assumptions will cause us to focus on something, as in another study by the same two researchers.3 In this study they asked people how happy someone would be if they had to move from California to the midwest United States. The trick was that for the subjects the most salient difference between those two regions was the climate. So that’s what they focused on and thus they erroneously predicted that people would be less happy than they typically are after such a move.

Other researchers have gotten even tricked subjects into focusing on a specific idea and watching as they fell prey to the focusing illusion in exactly the way they aimed to engineer it.4 In one study researchers gave college students a standard questionnaire to measure life satisfaction and happiness. But half the students were asked one simple question before completing the survey: “How many dates did you have last month?” Others were asked the same question but only AFTER they completed the survey. As you might guess, the ones asked about their love life before contemplating their general happiness focused on that idea and gave it more weight when deciding how good or bad things were.

Across all these studies, the common idea is that while it’s natural to focus on what’s important to us, that habit can also work in reverse: we ascribe importance to what we’re made to focus on. And here’s where we can return to pushing that damn payload in Overwatch.

Overwatch’s designers were clever in that they piled on tons of little cues to draw your attention to the payload. An outline of it is always visible even if you don’t have a line of sight to it. Characters in the game frequently blurt out things about the status of the payload. Players can point their crosshair at the payload and hit a key to send a message to the team’s text chat about the payload. An “ESCORT THE PAYLOAD” message appears across the player’s screen above a graph showing how far it is from the next destination. Players get rewarded with health generation for being near the payload. All these cues combine to draw attention to the payload, which hijacks the focusing illusion to teach players –especially first-time ones– that it is of the utmost importance.

And Overwatch is just one example of this. Other games similarly pull your attention to well lit or color-coded areas that contain important items or the path forward, or they straight up give you a button prompt to aim the camera at whatever it is that the designers want you to consider important. It’s the kind of thing that you notice in all kinds of games once you know to start looking for it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this payload ain’t gonna push itself.


1. Well, maybe they aren’t savvy about it and it’s just a happy accident but what kind of basis is that for an article like this?
2. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917–927.
3. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9, 340–346.
4. Schwarz, N. (1996). Cognition and communication: Judgmental biases, research methods and the logic of conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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